Scorsese, Schrader’s Ambulance Driver … Hee Haw Goes Hollywood

Scorsese, Schrader’s

Ambulance Driver

Just when we thought it was safe to return to the streets of

New York at night, director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, the

duo that sandblasted their way through Taxi

Driver 23 years ago, are psyched and ready to scare the living crap out of

us all over again. Bringing Out the Dead

takes us reluctantly back to the pre-Giuliani days when Manhattan’s West Side

was Tombstone after dark, law and order was something in a Vincente Minnelli

musical, and every night there was another gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Take a

Valium.

The time is the early 1990′s, the setting is Hell’s Kitchen,

and the focus is three nights in the harrowing lives of brave, burned-out,

overworked and underpaid paramedics played by Nicolas Cage, John Goodman, Ving

Rhames and Tom Sizemore. All of them walk the razor-blade edge between

distorted reality and total insanity, and some of them have already crossed

over as they make their rounds from one horror to the next. There isn’t much

plot, and after Mr. Scorsese drags you from ambulances to emergency rooms with

the driving ferocity of a screaming rock-and-roll beat, you may, at the end of

two hours, feel the need to check into Bellevue yourself. Still, this is a

furiously paced, unsparingly feverish trip to hell that cannot be easily

dismissed or forgotten. It has the bloody, nerve-rattling impact of a mugging

at gunpoint.

Here is a landscape of junkies, pregnant hookers, burning

barrels in vacant lots, teen-agers dying of AIDS, women with cockroaches stuck

in their eardrums, drug overdoses, cardiac arrests, suicides and one tragedy

after another, and the paramedics on the graveyard shift are the cameras

through which the agony is captured. To these guys, anger, fear, despair,

desperation, cruelty and sleep deprivation play like job descriptions, and no

matter how bad it gets it always gets worse. Living on junk food, painkillers

and gin, the hollow-eyed Mr. Cage has finally had all the stench, blood and

death he can take in this hellish nocturnal nightmare. No wonder he heads for a

friendly, stress-free crack den himself. While he hears voices and sees ghosts

of the souls he’s lost, Mr. Sizemore takes a more direct approach, pulverizing

a hallucinatory junkie with a baseball bat and assaulting his own ambulance

with a crowbar. But while they spiral out of control, the movie spirals out of

control, too, exploding in a repellant furnace of surrealism directed with a

blowtorch and punctuated by poetic narration. (“My life was less about saving

lives and more about bearing witness,” says Mr. Cage over the sirens. “I was a

grief mop.”) New York is the main

character, and it’s depicted as an endless corridor of human dumpsters. Well,

it’s fascinating, but you can’t say nihilism doesn’t dominate.

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Taxi Driver . Mr. Scorsese and Mr.

Schrader have aged and mellowed, and so has New York. So why is their New York

still so graphically violent and relentlessly noxious? There are still 9

million stories in the naked city, but with all of the miracles witnessed by

people who have called for emergency ambulances, it’s regretful that Bringing Out the Dead couldn’t find one

episode about paramedics with a happy ending.

Based on a lurid book by Joe Connelly, a former paramedic,

it tells some truths, but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole truth. Somewhere

in the vomit and madness there has got to be hope. The Scorsese-Schrader team still

knows how to make powerful films, and the persuasive performances and polished

technology don’t bore, but this is not a movie for general audiences. Even if

you survive it, you will never dial 911 again.

Hee Haw Goes

Hollywood

Crazy in Alabama

marks the directorial debut of Latin lothario Antonio Banderas. O.K., so he

knows what to do with a camera. He’s just turned it on the wrong movie. In this

curiously uneasy blend of “shucks, y’all” whimsy and social consciousness, Mrs.

Banderas, better known as Melanie Griffith, plays Lucille, a 34-year-old Daisy

Mae from a backwoods Dogpatch called Industry, Ala., who pours rat poison into

her husband’s coffee, cuts off his head with an electric carving knife,

deposits her seven brats with her bewildered mother, and heads for Hollywood to

become a star.

Two parallel stories emerge. While Lucille grifts and grinds

her way west via New Orleans and Florida, her nephew Peejoe fights racial

prejudice back home in Alabama, where an evil sheriff played by Meat Loaf is terrorizing

the town. In Hollywood, Aunt Lucille crashes TV with the help of an unctuous

agent (Robert Wagner) and ends up on a segment of Bewitched , dragging her husband’s severed head to the set in a hat

box, while back in Industry, Peejoe ends up on the cover of Look magazine. The whole thing yawns its

way to a finale when Aunt Lucille returns home a local celebrity to appear at

her own murder trial, a preposterous scene presided over by a hilarious judge

(Rod Steiger) right out of Petticoat Junction.

The cast includes the excellent David Morse, Cathy Moriarty

and Fannie Flagg, and rarely have so many talented people seemed so out of

place. Ms. Griffith looks sluttish and awful in a series of ugly black wigs,

nobody seems particularly well suited to the roles of Southern cornpones, and

the dialogue consisting of such riveting exchanges as “Gosh dawg!” and

“Dadgummit!” could only pass for authentic hillbilly patois to someone like Mr.

Banderas, whose first language, in any case, has never been English.

He’s King of His

World

Joe the King is a

grueling but haunting intelligently made little film written and directed by

the 36-year-old actor Frank Whaley, who is probably best remembered as the

gullible preppy whose drug deal went wrong in Pulp Fiction and as Kevin Spacey’s demonic assistant in Swimming With Sharks . Between acting

assignments, Mr. Whaley somehow found the time to create this remarkable

portrait of an impoverished teenager spiraling toward a life of crime and

found, among his friends, an all-star cast that shared his cinematic vision.

The result is a very fine film indeed. I found myself genuinely moved which, in

a year of silliness, is quite an accomplishment.

Adolescence is never easy, but for poor 14-year-old Joe

Henry (played with astounding maturity and focus by the excellent young actor

Noah Fleiss), the humiliation is downright palpable. Joe lives a life so

deprived and joyless he spends most of his free time in a dark crawl space

under the front porch of his dilapidated house on Staten Island, listening to

the violence inside its gloomy walls. Joe’s father is the drunken janitor in

his school-a shiftless, irresponsible wife-beater who owes everybody in the

neighborhood-played without a shred of glammed-up star charisma by Val Kilmer.

Joe’s long-suffering, hard-working mother (the excellent Karen Young) is an

abuse victim whose only joy in life is her old 33-r.p.m. Johnny Ray records,

until Dad smashes them up, too.

While Joe’s traumatized older brother withdraws from the

world to sleep on the floor inside a closet, there is a survival instinct in

Joe that drives him to improve his situation, look for a silver lining and find

some dignity and humanity in his hopeless life. Tragically, he must break the

law to do it. Fueled by a well-intentioned but distracted guidance counselor

(Ethan Hawke), the boy looks for ways to alleviate the pain, turmoil and

indifference in his life, first by stealing from the freezer in the greasy

spoon where he washes dishes after school, then by breaking into school lockers,

and finally by robbing the cashbox to pay off his Dad’s creditors and replace

his mother’s broken phonograph records.

Denied even the most basic protections to which a child is

entitled, Joe makes up his own rules in a world where he alone is king, but the

only payoff is jail. Mr. Whaley is a most persuasive and compassionate

storyteller whose strength is never passing moral judgments. His characters

merely exist.

In the title role, young Mr. Fleiss never plays to the

camera like one of those self-conscious Hollywood teenagers suffering from a

terminal case of the cutes. He even has bags under his eyes. The sound is

sometimes muffled, the camerawork occasionally flat, but Mr. Whaley’s script

and focused direction provide raw materials that more than make up for the

technical imperfections in a debut feature.

Joe the King , with

its harsh and relentless realism, will have to find its audience, but the

serendipitous pleasure you’ll derive from finding it on your own will be

enormous.